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High Crimes: A review of marijuana decriminalization in Harrisburg

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Arrests resulting in a misdemeanor charge for the possession of a small amount of marijuana have dropped significantly in Harrisburg since the city’s decriminalization ordinance went into effect.

However, the lowered penalty may have resulted in more people being penalized, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.

Harrisburg City Council passed an ordinance in 2016 that gives police officers the option to file a summary citation and $75 fine, similar to a traffic ticket, to anyone caught with 30 grams or less of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia. The fine for using a small amount of the drug is $150.

A person can receive two citations within five years under the ordinance. Third and subsequent offenses are charged as a misdemeanor using the existing state law.

“The purpose of creating the ordinance was to give individuals who have a first or second offense to keep this at a summary level where it does not impact them career wise, education wise,” Harrisburg Police Capt. Gabriel Olivera said. “That was the intent.”

The ordinance was not implemented until the end of March.


How has it worked out so far?

Arrests resulting in a misdemeanor charge for possession of a small amount of marijuana fell nearly 30 percent in the first six months after the ordinance was enacted, according to a study of court records conducted by The Sentinel.


Misdemeanor arrests for the possession or use of a small amount of marijuana dropped by 30 percent following the implementation of a decriminalization ordinance in Harrisburg. However, overall arrests for the crime rose by 17 percent, according to a study conducted by The Sentinel.

However, about 60 percent of all cases that were eligible for the ordinance were still filed under the misdemeanor charge, according to the study.

Olivera said there is no benchmark for a reduction in misdemeanor charges but he said he expects officers to be more willing to use the ordinance as they become comfortable with it.

“As times gone on I think the officers realized that it’s another tool, not that they could not file a misdemeanor charge,” Olivera said. “It’s that you have another tool.”

The Sentinel reviewed all criminal dockets filed by Harrisburg Police in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania in 2016, as well as all criminal and nontraffic dockets filed in the system in 2017.

The study looked at all cases with an offense date between March 24 and Sept. 24 of both years where the defendant was charged with misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana with the only possible additional charge being misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia.

Cases where the defendant was charged with a crimes code, traffic or other drug violation were not included in the study.

Summary citations for the same charges under the Harrisburg ordinance were then included in the 2017 cases.

Misdemeanor charges

A total of 88 cases were filed during that period in 2016, according to court records. Without the ordinance, all of those cases involved misdemeanor charges.

Misdemeanor cases dropped to only 62 in 2017 following the enactment of the ordinance, court records showed.

However, overall arrests increased to 103 in 2017, when summary citations were included. That is an overall 17 percent increase in arrests for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

As a comparison, similar arrests in neighboring Swatara Township remained largely flat during this period in 2016 and 2017, according to court records.

Several studies dating back to the 1980s have found little evidence that decriminalization leads to increased use of marijuana, and The Sentinel found little in the charging data that would support a theory that use has increased significantly.

For example, only one additional DUI case in 2017 featured the defendant also found in possession of a small amount of marijuana at the time of arrest in Harrisburg compared to 2016, according to the study.

A possible explanation for the increase in overall small amount of marijuana arrests in Harrisburg following decriminalization is what is known as net widening in which police are more willing to make an arrest if the penalty is less severe.

“Before the cops may have caught somebody smoking a joint and said ‘hey, we don’t want to bring him in,’ so they take and confiscate the drugs and let the person go,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “They didn’t necessarily want the person getting a criminal record. If you decriminalize … the cops may be more likely to write the person up because they know it’s not going to lead to a criminal offense.”

Officer’s choice

Officers still have discretion and are not compelled to use the ordinance, Olivera said.

“We haven’t taken the discretion away from the officers,” he said. “They can still use that discretion. They can still charge the misdemeanor charge. They just have another tool when dealing with an individual.”

Olivera said one of the aims of the ordinance was to give younger people who are caught with a small amount of marijuana a chance to avoid a criminal record.

People 21 years old or younger saw a nearly 35 percent reduction in misdemeanor arrests for possession of a small amount of marijuana, according to the study. This was a larger drop than any age group except those over the age of 35, which saw a more than 50 decrease in misdemeanor arrests.

There was, however, a more than 25 percent increase in overall arrests for possession of a small amount of marijuana for people 21 years old or younger when summary citations were included, The Sentinel found.

The average age of a person arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana dropped by nearly two years following the implementation of the decriminalization ordinance, according to the study.

Olivera said the ordinance also creates less work for an officer, which can free up time to handle more serious cases.

Officers only need to fill out a roughly five-by-seven piece of paper for a summary citation. To file criminal charges the officer is required to file a full police report, file a criminal complaint that is signed by a judge and have the defendant arraigned, fingerprinted and photographed, Olivera said.

“With the officers more available, they do tend to deal with all the additional call volume that we have and the more serious cases,” he said.

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Email Joshua Vaughn at Follow him on Twitter at @Sentinel_Vaughn.


Cops & Courts Reporter

Crime & Courts Reporter at The Sentinel.